Ruskin Park is the flagship arboretum for the Borough of Lambeth with over forty species of different trees in the park, totaling about 600 trees. Some of the more interesting or uncommon species are detailed below.

The majority of trees were planted when the park was laid out in the early 1900s. Many of these trees are reaching their maturity and now beginning to weaken and have to be felled. The horse chestnut avenue is probably now past its best, being afflicted with disease.

The borders of the park contain a wide range of shrubs that over the years have thickened to provide a valuable shelter for wildlife. Rhododendrons are planted around the stable block under a canopy of Silver Birch (Betula pendula). The remainder of the plantings are a mixture of largely evergreen plants dominated by English natives such as Yew (Taxus baccata), Holly (Ilex aquifolium), Ivy (Hedera helix) and Box (Buxus sempervirens). An interesting native is the Butcher’s Broom (Ruscus aculeatus) growing around the stable block and duck pond. The leaves of this low-growing evergreen are in fact flattened stems that in spring carry flowers in the centre.

There are a large number of bulbs planted throughout the park including snowdrops that flower from January, crocus and daffodils. There is an area near the bandstand opposite the wildlife pond that is the main bulb area with a plethora of bulbs, which flower from January to April heralding the start of spring each year. In 2002 residents paid for bulbs to be planted along Finsen Rd to mark The Queen’s Golden Jubilee.

The side of the park along Denmark Hill and around the stable block has a particularly rich variety of trees from around the world.

The small silver-leafed tree growing just by the gate at the King’s College Hospital and Denmark Hill/Champion Park road junction is the Willow Leafed Pear (Pyrus salicifolia pendula), originally from Asia. This attractive ‘weeping’ tree produces small inedible pear-like fruits. The very tall tree nearby is a Grey Poplar (Populus canescens). The leaves have grey-white furry undersides. These fast-growing trees have a very vigorous root system and sucker freely – look out for the small suckers growing up in the surrounding lawns. A fine young Cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani) has been planted nearby.

A large Copper Beech (Fagus sylvatica purpurea) shades the path into the park. Near the rose beds further up the hill there are several small English Elms growing in the shrubbery alongside the road. Unfortunately as soon as they reach any size they are detected by the flying beetle that carries Dutch Elm disease, as taller dead trees around testify. Among the trees on the lawn to the right is a deciduous conifer, Dawn Redwood (Metasequioa glyptostroboides). Discovered in China in 1941 this tree has remained unchanged for millions of years, but is now classified as ‘critically endangered’ in its natural habitat.

Opposite the portico, near the gate onto Denmark Hill, are two small Maidenhair Trees (Gingko biloba). These trees, which have small fan-shaped leaves, are the last remaining species of the group of trees that dominated the Jurassic period of the earth’s history. Originally from China, they were first planted in England over 200 years ago; extracts from the trees are now widely used in herbal medicines. On the right, in the centre of the lawn, is a rather rare tree, the large spreading Caucasian Wing Nut (Pterocarya fraxinifolia). It is recognisable by its long catkins in the summer and the hundreds of suckers that it produces around its base.

Further up the hill, by the entrance to the stable block yard (see Features of Interest), is an evergreen oak, the Holm Oak (Quercus ilex). Its name, holm, an ancient word for holly, is derived from its somewhat spiny leaves. Opposite is a fine specimen of London Plane (Platanus x hispanica), which is easily recognisable by its large leaves, patchwork trunk and brown seed balls, which hang from its branches throughout the winter and release seeds in spring. This tree was planted widely in London, as it sloughs off its bark regularly making it very resistant to air pollution. It can live to a great age and some of the first London Planes planted in England as long ago as 1666 are still in full vigour.

At the Ferndene Road and Denmark Hill corner of the park beside the stable block, the path curves round past the Mendelssohn sundial (see Features of Interest). At the back of the lawn beside the stable block is a large white Magnolia, which is striking when it flowers in late March into early April. In the lawn in front is an Indian Bean Tree (Catalpa bignionoides). Due to vandalism, caused by a dog biting off the bark around the trunk, this tree has died, but a replacement Indian Bean tree was planted by volunteers in early 2010 in the lawn at the back of the portico. In winter it is covered with long pods up to 40 cm long, used by Native Americans in the past to make flour. This is the last of all the park’s trees to come into leaf, sometimes not until early June, and later that month it is covered with large white flowers spotted with yellow and purple. Near the magnolia, in a small dip in the ground, is a Sweet Gum or Liquidamber (Liquidamber styraciflua), whose leaves turn a stunning bright scarlet, red and purple in autumn. Also on this lawn are a variety of cherry trees, of which the Friends contributed to the cost and planting; some have early blossom in January and February.

Behind the stable block is a tree with heart-shaped leaves that for most of the year is rather insignificant, but in May is covered with strange white blossoms. These are large white modified leaves or bracts, which look like white handkerchiefs and measure 20cm by 10cm – hence the tree’s English name, the Handkerchief Tree (Davidia involucrata). It is also known as the Ghost or Dove tree.

In the shrubbery across the lawn and flower beds from the pergola it is sometimes possible to see a number of small trees with large leaves up to 90cm long. These are the root suckers of the Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) that grows in the shrubbery. The suckers often appear many metres away from their parents and need to be removed quickly to prevent them taking over the area. In the lawn at the Denmark Hill end of the pergola is another magnificent copper beech. At the opposite end of the pergola, there is a magnificent pink and white Magnolia and nearby a very tall bright green conifer whose leaves turn bright red and, most unusually for a conifer, fall off in autumn. This is a Swamp Cypress (Taxodium distichum); it originates in the swamps of Mississippi, but seems quite happy in our drier soils.

The large trees around the bandstand are Silver Maples (Acer saccharinum) which once formed a complete circle around the bandstand, but are now showing their age. The leaves have silvery undersides and turn gold and scarlet in autumn. The newly planted trees are Tulip Trees (Liriodendron), and the plan is to use these to replace the maples over time – their more upright shape will be better suited to making a formal circle of trees.

Below the bandstand, towards the railway and right of the new wildlife pools, is a ‘grove’ of eight Almond Trees (Prunus dulcis), planted by the Friends of Ruskin Park in early 2002; their pink blossom is a welcome sight in spring. The almonds have a connection with John Ruskin – one of the chapters of his autobiography is entitled ‘Herne Hill Almond Blossoms’.

The avenue of Horse Chestnuts (Aesculus hippocastanum), the familiar conker tree, runs from the duck pond across to the central shelter and is a remnant of the
19th century ornamental gardens that predated the park.

At the sports field/Finsen Road end of the horse chestnut avenue stands one of the finest trees in the park – a huge Turkey Oak (Quercus cerris). It has an overall spread of 110 feet and is clearly marked on a map of the area from 1907, so must have been an impressive specimen even then. The turkey oak, native to southern Europe and Asia Minor, was first grown in England in 1735 and this tree is probably over 200 years old. Opposite this turkey oak is another at the Ferndene Road side. This turkey oak was planted with a contribution from the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association (MPGA) in commemoration of the park’s centenary in 2007. The MPGA also made a contribution towards bulbs planted along the Ferndene Road perimeter of the sports field in commemoration of the sports field extension centenary in 2010. Running along the path from the shelter to Ferndene Road is a line of Lime Trees (Tillia x europea). These cast a heavy shade and in summer the leaves are covered in shiny honey dew exuded by aphids feeding on the trees. The trees planted around the perimeter of the large sports field are Ash Trees (Fraxinus excelsior) – an English native.